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Here’s How Early You Need To Arrive To Catch Your Flight at 50 U.S. Airports

Alex Miller's image
Alex Miller
Alex Miller's image

Alex Miller

Founder & CEO

295 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 34U.S. States Visited: 29

Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, Alex is a leader in the industry and has earned and redeemed millions of points and miles. He frequently discusses the award travel industry with CNBC, Fox Business...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Keri Stooksbury

Editor-in-Chief

35 Published Articles 3222 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 47U.S. States Visited: 28

With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now editor-in-chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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The sinking feeling of dread you get when you hear the final boarding call before you reach your gate is nothing short of awful. Whether you consistently run late or have never missed a flight in your life, you may be wondering, “How early should I get to the airport?”

Between bustling holiday crowds and outlandishly-long security lines, a little pre-planning can go a long way. Plus, who wants to miss holiday dinner instead of spending a few extra hours (or days) waiting for the next flight out? 

In this study, we analyzed 15 ranking factors at 50 major U.S. airports, such as airport size, number of passengers, number of bars, average TSA wait times, and more to find the airports where it’s most important for passengers to arrive early. Then, based on this airport ranking, we determined how early you should arrive at each airport to catch your flight.

Key Findings

If you’re wondering how early should you get to the airport, you’re not alone. Planning out your arrival time can help you decide whether to pack your suitcase the day of or the night before. It can also help you decide whether you have any time to spare after arriving at the airport to relax with a drink at the airport bar. Check out our quick key findings below to discover which airports you’ll be spending the most and least time in before boarding.

  • Due to average TSA wait times, passenger congestion, airport staffing, and the size of the airport (among other factors), passengers need to arrive at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) earlier than all other airports in our ranking to catch their flight –– over 3 hours ahead of time.
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) rank second and third in our ranking of the best airports for passengers to arrive early. Passengers need to budget nearly 3 hours for both airports to make their flights.
  • John Glenn Columbus International Airport (CMH) falls at the bottom of our ranking, meaning passengers don’t need to arrive at this airport as early as they would at other higher-traffic airports.

What Time Should You Get to the Airport?

U.S. map displaying the top airports to arrive at early
Image Credit: Upgraded Points

What time you arrive at an airport should depend on large and busy the airport is. Consider how many gates the airport has and whether or not it’s located in a major metro area. There are certain ones you’ll need to show up at earlier than others to catch your flight. Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is first on our list, requiring passengers to arrive 3 hours and 4 minutes early to board smoothly. In 2021, this airport boasted a record-breaking ​​54,020,399 passengers. It also has a whopping 193 gates — more than any other airport in our study. What’s more, the airport is understaffed. O’Hare has 3,606 badged airport employees per square mile, 9% below the national average.

Coming in at number 5 is ​​Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), which requires passengers to arrive 2 hours and 50 minutes before their scheduled departure time. The airport spans 17,207 acres, so wear your comfortable walking shoes!

Jumping down to spot number 8 on our list is Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), which requires passengers to arrive 2 hours and 45 minutes ahead to catch their flight on time. Obstacles like a 19.13-minute average TSA wait time (39% longer than the national average) may stand in the way of a quick boarding experience.

How Early Should I Get to the Airport?

Infographic displaying 50 major U.S. airlines and how early you need to arrive at each
Image Credit: Upgraded Points

How early you should get to the airport depends on several factors including TSA wait times, congestion, and the size of the airport. You’ll want to arrive 3 hours early for large, busy airports. For example, passengers should arrive at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) 2 hours and 59 minutes before their scheduled departure. With over 8 terminals, 146 gates, and an overwhelming amount of car traffic outside the airport, it’s no wonder this airport can be a maze to navigate.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), located in Houston, needs passengers to show up 2 hours and 55 minutes ahead of time. This airport is the equivalent of a small college at 10,000 acres and welcomed 31,866,308 passengers through its gates in 2021. 

Passengers should arrive at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) 2 hours and 45 minutes early to wind through the TSA security lines with time to spare. Plus, if you get there early, you can visit the Aviation Museum and Library (yep — that’s a real museum inside an airport!). 

On the flip side, airports like Kansas City International Airport (MCI) only require you to show up 1 hour and 16 minutes ahead of schedule for a domestic flight. Who says you can’t stop and smell the roses at the airport?

Zooming In on Airport Bars, Acreage, Employees, and TSA Wait Times

Who wouldn’t want a martini to take the edge off a long flight? Airports like LaGuardia Airport (LGA) could give you a food coma or an alcohol-induced buzz where you could lose track of time and run the risk of missing your flight. LaGuardia has 59 restaurants/bars, which may not seem like a lot at first glance; however, when considering the airport’s small size, it boasts 61.46 restaurants/bars (per square mile).

Denver International Airport (DEN) can help you get your steps in, as it spans 33,531 acres (more than any other U.S. airport), which creates plenty of opportunities to walk in circles and maybe even miss a connecting flight or 2. 

When it comes to long lines slowing you down, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) takes the cake, with an average TSA wait time of 19.68 minutes — 43% longer than the national average.

Full Data

Interested in diving deeper into the numbers or wanting to see how your local airport stacks up if it’s not listed within the above charts? We’ve compiled our full data study for all 50 U.S. airports analyzed into the interactive table below. 

Methodology

We analyzed 50 of the largest U.S. airports on 15 ranking factors and assigned each one a weighted score of 0 to 10. We determined each airport’s total score out of 50 from the total of its individual factor scores, which were weighted according to their impact on missing a domestic flight. Higher scores indicate airports with a greater need to arrive early. The ranking factors and their respective weights and sources are listed below.

SCROLL FOR MORE
Ranking FactorWeightSource
No. of Enplanements$1
No. of Passengers$1
Airport Size (In Acres)$1
Average TSA Wait Time$2TSA Wait Times
No. of Terminals0.25
Individual Airport Websites
No. of Gates1
Individual Airport Websites
No. of Airport Employees (Per Square Mile)$1
Individual Airport Websites
No. of Airport Lounges (Per Square Mile)$0
Individual Airport Websites
No. of Restaurants/Bars (Per Square Mile)$0
Individual Airport Websites
No. of Shops (Per Square Mile)$0
Individual Airport Websites
No. of Parking Lots/Decks0.5
Percentage of On-time Departures0.5
Percentage of Delayed Departures0.5
Car Traffic Volume0.5
Car Traffic Index0.5Numbeo

In this study, the airport size (in square miles) for each airport was calculated by subtracting the mileage of runways from the total land area. We collected each airport’s total acreage and runway length using data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The pre-flight arrival time for each airport is an index calculated from each airport’s total airport score using the standard 2 hours ahead of time as our median. For each airport, we calculated the percentage change from the median airport score. We then multiplied that percentage by 2 hours (120 minutes) to determine the pre-flight arrival time (in hours and minutes) for each airport. The pre-flight arrival time is how early passengers should arrive before their domestic flights.

Final Thoughts

Deciding how early should you get to the airport can be a challenge. If you come up too short, then you may risk missing your flight. Airports like Chicago (ORD) and Los Angeles (LAX) may not be the best to fly out of if you want to make it home to enjoy a cup of eggnog by the fire. Whether or not you like flying, certain airports like Kansas City (MCI) and Columbus (CMH) can help you get through security quickly and boarding in no time.

Frequently Asked Questions

How early should I get to the airport for a domestic flight?

Most airlines advise that you arrive at the airport at least 2 hours prior to a domestic flight. That said, there are many factors to consider that will help you decide how much time you should budget for at the airport, such as the size of the airport, the time of year you’re traveling, the time of day you’re traveling, and whether you’re checking a bag or not.

You’ll want to budget more time for yourself if you’re traveling out of a large international airport, as these airports are often much busier than smaller regional airports. The time of year you’re flying can also greatly impact airport busyness. For example, summer is the busiest season for travel, and summer weekends see the most airport congestion since the demand for travel is so high during the warmer months. Pre- and post-holiday travel days also see larger-than-average airport crowds.

Similarly, the time of your flight can also impact how busy an airport is. You can expect airports to be significantly more crowded in the middle of the day than in the early morning or late at night. What’s more, if you’re checking a bag, you’ll need to budget more time for yourself at the airport. Some airports offer a self-check kiosk that allows you to drop your bag at the desk when you’re done. However, airports that do not offer a self-check kiosk will require you to wait in line to check your bag.

How early should I get to the airport for an international flight?

Most airlines advise that you arrive at the airport at least 3 hours prior to an international flight. Flyers who are traveling to an international destination should arrive at the airport earlier than domestic flyers. This is because international flights can have additional check-in requirements, like passport verification, that need to be completed before you receive your boarding pass. Further, international flights tend to begin their boarding process 15 to 30 minutes earlier than domestic flights due to the larger plane size.

Do you really need to arrive 2 hours before a flight?

Pre-flight arrival times are dependent on all of the factors listed above, but the industry standard is arriving 2 hours ahead of a domestic flight so that you have time to park (or get dropped off), check your bags, get through security, and make it to your gate at least 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure. We recommend using the MyTSA app to check how busy your local airport is likely to be on the day of your departure, based on historical TSA data. This will give you a better idea of how early you need to arrive before your flight.

When should I get to the airport if I have TSA PreCheck?

One of the biggest time-savers when you’re at the airport is having TSA PreCheck. TSA PreCheck allows you to skip the extremely lengthy general security lines at the airport. It offers expedited security screening so that you can keep your laptop and liquids in your bag and keep your shoes on. It also offers much shorter lines than standard security. If you’re a TSA PreCheck member who is flying domestic on a non-holiday and not checking any bags, it’s safe to arrive an hour and a half before your departure time.

Alex Miller's image

About Alex Miller

Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, Alex is a leader in the industry and has earned and redeemed millions of points and miles. He frequently discusses the award travel industry with CNBC, Fox Business, The New York Times, and more.

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